Top Pop and Rock Songs From 1986

In the life of an adolescent, arguably more than any other time of life, music truly becomes one of the most meaningful accompaniments for an evolving existence. I can't say 1986 was one of my favorite years within the context of my own life, but many of the songs spotlighted below helped me make it through and remain significant elements of my ever-changing musical memory. 

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Nu Shooz - "I Can't Wait"

Nu Shooz
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Atlantic/WEA

It may be a slightly bold move to spotlight a one-hit wonder (two if you want to be charitable) in an annual list of top songs, but this wonderfully arranged, sublime pop song is so perfectly suited to its time that it deserves this spot. The married duo of John Smith and Valerie Day may not have had much staying power, but Day quietly had one of the great pop voices of the era, which is enthusiastically and imaginatively matched to a striking keyboard riff and various atmospheric synth parts. This may be glossy, light pop through and through, but I don't mind when it gets stuck in my head. I hope you agree.

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Howard Jones - "No One Is to Blame"

Howard Jones
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Elektra/Asylum

This lovely, layered and lyrically dense tune reached No. 4 on the pop charts, No. 1 adult contemporary and even made a respectable showing on the mainstream rock charts in 1986. That versatility defines synth pop/new wave veteran Jones' stirring tale of romantic wanderlust and the emotional scars often left in its wake. Musically, Jones' piano takes the haunting center stage, but percussion choices also contribute to a heartrending effect wholly earned.

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Mike + the Mechanics - "All I Need Is a Miracle"

Mike + the Mechanics

Another transcendent pop tune of the '80s comes courtesy of one of the "other guys" from Genesis, Mike Rutherford, and the all-star band he put together while Phil Collins was flying solo. Soaring in on the strength of lead vocals from Paul Young (not the guy who hit it big with "Everytime You Go Away"), the track works perfectly as an upbeat, hopeful synth pop tune that provides a boost of '80s positivity every time it plays. Young turns out to be the right Paul for this job (the more famous Paul Carrack takes lead vocals for the excellent, haunting "Silent Running"), and for a moment Rutherford escapes the shadows.

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The Dream Academy - "Life in a Northern Town"

The Dream Academy
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino/Warner Bros.

Speaking of haunting, this Top 10 hit from the British baroque pop group the Dream Academy (probably also fairly characterized as one-hit wonders) drips wonderfully with atmosphere and melancholy from its breathtaking opening to its aching, repeated chorus. The vocals of Nick Laird-Clowes forge an appropriate tribute to acts like the Left Banke or Nick Drake, '60s artists that had a clear and favorable impact on the Dream Academy's utterly unique sound. Ultimately, this music prevails as a breed apart in its era but also a completely essential document of the wide palette of '80s music.

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Heart - "These Dreams"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Capitol Records

Recast as a pop group after a decade of dues-paying as a harder-rocking band, the '80s slick arena rock incarnation of Heart hit the jackpot with this dreamy (makes sense) and evocative ballad, one of the few tracks from the band sung mostly by Nancy Wilson. That may not be the main reason this one climbed to No. 1 and became such an emblematic '80s track, but her slightly less polished vocal style helps lend a freshness to the tune that makes it even more memorable. Unfortunately, the band's '80s makeover mandated sometimes that the Wilson sisters' songwriting talents be utilized a bit less, but at least this is a flawless song.

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Toto - "I'll Be Over You"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia Records

As a former mildly hard rock band made up of L.A. session musicians that became the very epitome of soft rock during the '80s, Toto was often the object of derision for many music fans not on their wavelength. But that doesn't nullify the fact that the group released some of the decade's finest melodic pop tunes, including this one that reached No. 11 on the Hot 100 but reached the pinnacle of the adult contemporary charts. The song is fueled by a truly lovely verse and chorus, but the real ace in the hole is Steve Lukather, Toto's underrated lead guitarist who provides a much-needed if limited rock edge to the tune.

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Eddie Money - "I Wanna Go Back"

Eddie Money
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia Records

When considering straight-ahead rocker Eddie Money for this list, it really comes down to a simple choice, this song or "Take Me Home Tonight," the '60s pop homage that became a bigger hit for the singer in 1986. I've always come down on the side of "I Wanna Go Back," even half a life ago when I certainly understood less its rueful examination of the passing of time. I'm even going to stick with it now despite the dreadfully cheesy saxophone opening that kicks things off. Overall, Money plays to his vocal strengths here, delivering a convincingly inward take on looking back on life and the perils of such nostalgia.

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New Order - "Bizarre Love Triangle"

New Order
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino/Warner Bros.

Although this song didn't show up on the pop charts, it certainly made a splash as a Top 10 hit on the niche dance charts, a place the band had consistent success. Buoyed by an unforgettably sublime chorus, the tune delivers a familiar melancholy for which the band is known, against a backdrop of exuberant synthesizers and dance beats.

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Peter Gabriel - "In Your Eyes"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen Records

Even if it had not been immortalized so wonderfully and unforgettably in Cameron Crowe's 1989 film Say Anything, this song would completely deserve to be remembered as one of the finest, most transcendent pop songs of the decade. It certainly achieves far beyond the two massive hits from Peter Gabriel's top-selling So, the annoying and ubiquitous "Big Time" and "Sledgehammer." But experience has taught us that it is not atypical for the best songs at any given moment to be slighted on radio playlists and within the public consciousness. This is simply one of rock music's all-time great love songs of passion and devotion.

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The Bangles - "Manic Monday"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia Records

Far and away superior to "Walk Like an Egyptian," the band's inexplicably popular No. 1 hit from Different Light, this song, while also not written by any members of the Bangles, at least qualifies as a truly resplendent pop classic. It probably didn't hurt that the tune was written by Prince, an artist who had already shown a great propensity for placing his compositions in the hands of capable, appropriate interpreters. Musically, the song establishes a compelling sense of longing, using the Bangles' harmonies effectively against some lovely piano fills that provide a welcome, additional melodic layer.